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The Pit-Prop Syndicate

Page history last edited by Jon 10 years, 3 months ago

Crofts, Freeman Wills - The Pit-Prop Syndicate


The Pit-Prop Syndicate is available from Project Gutenberg.


After his initial triumph with the alibi plot in The Cask, Crofts turned to stories in which the physical properties of means of transportation, such as trains and ships, became important. The tales are only moderately successful, compared with The Cask, but they have their merits. The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922) is a mystery-cum-thriller, in which two men investigate a strange business. The storytelling in the book drags, but the solution of the mystery shows considerable mechanical ingenuity. You can also learn a lot about motorbiking, boating, shipping and traveling in remote regions of France in this story: the settings are as rural as those of The Cask are urban. The plot is best followed through an atlas, and is set in a realistic geography. It is especially atmospheric in showing its heroes' journey through a deserted region of the French countryside. The Europe of the book is one in which people can travel anywhere, by boat or motorbike; it seems to be a universally commercial land, devoted to business enterprises; it seems profoundly at peace, in way that it will not be again for 70 years. The book seems heavily padded, and would be much better as a novella, at around a third of the length of the existing novel.


Mike Grost


Review by Nick Fuller




A thoroughly awful book, one of Crofts’s “thrillers” which substitute excessive technical detail and tedious police procedure for the usual ingredients of a book: characterisation, dialogue and an ability to keep the reader turning the pages. In what would be postmodernism in another and later author, Crofts’s characters are bored witless with the whole business:


“If possible, the slow passage of the heavily weighted hours until the following evening was even more irksome to the watcher than on the first occasion. Merriman felt he would die of weariness and boredom long before anything happened, and it was only the thought that he was doing it for Madeline Coburn that kept him from utter collapse.”


Merriman’s feelings are entirely justified. The first half of the book is “influenced” (read: “plagiarism”) by Erskine Childers’s Riddle of the Sands: a young man who doesn’t enjoy boats has a yachting holiday with a friend, they investigate a mysterious gang of smugglers and he falls in love with the daughter of one of them. The second part turns into the usual plodding detective story. Since there are no alibis to break and the murderer is rather clumsily discovered by his fingerprints left in the taxi where he shot his victim, this is excruciatingly dull stuff. Timetables do appear, however. Having repressed his unhealthy urges as far as the last chapter, Crofts lets himself go with a full-page plan of the line and an almost parodic analysis:


“He began to study the trains. The first northwards was the 4 pm dining express from King’s Cross to Newcastle. It left Doncaster at 7.56 and reached Selby at 8.21. Would Archer travel by it? And if he did, what would be his next move?”


Excellent stuff for masochists.


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